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A potential new meteor shower from shattered comet has scientists excited


Tau Herculids may be about to make their first appearance in our sky.

(Image credit: Sean Parker)

There may be a new meteor shower visible this Memorial Day weekend, especially in North America.

This comet, Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, is evaporating, and pieces of it may collide with our planet, igniting the meteors (SW3). In addition to thrill-seekers, comet scientists are eagerly anticipating the encounter. The meteor shower is expected to peak overnight on Memorial Day (Monday, May 30) and continue into the early hours of Tuesday, according to NASA’s predictions.


By comet standards, SW3 is relatively close to the sun, orbiting our star every five years. It began to disintegrate in 1995, resulting in the formation of a cloud of debris that continues to orbit the sun.

We’ve previously witnessed comets separating. Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s SOFIA Science Center believe that one out of every 100 periodic comets, if not more, could eventually fragment.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 famously disintegrated in the 1990s, and large chunks of it smashed into Jupiter. SW3’s disintegration may look similar to that of SW2, but it is “almost certainly not the same,” quotes Reach as telling the website.


Comets break up for a variety of reasons, many of which are unknown to science. One or a combination of a number of variables could be at play. Jupiter’s gravitational pull weakened Shoemaker-Levy 9, for example. When water or other volatile compounds in the comet’s composition heat up and go from a solid to a gas, other comets may shatter.

A comet’s constant oscillations from the sun’s core to the colder outer regions of the solar system strains the body’s thermal system. Something might give if repeated stress is applied to it long enough.

In any case, SW3 has disbanded. Earth’s orbit has been bringing our planet closer and closer to the debris field that has formed over the last several decades. This year, for the first time, seems to be a year in which we are able to enjoy the ride. Some potentially spectacular meteors could be produced if this is the case. Comet debris that falls to Earth’s atmosphere will burn up.


Astronomers are eager to see shards of a celestial object up close and personal. One astronomer, Jérémie Vaubaillon, plans to fly over New Mexico and Arizona in a jet during the meteor shower to get even closer to the action.

Reach told that “flying through it” proves that the particles have survived. “That’s something we have no idea about. They don’t last long in the icy ones.”

The fragmentation of comet shards can reveal information about their composition as they enter Earth’s atmosphere. It’s possible that some of those shards come from inside a comet, a realm that astronomers can’t access by looking at an object through a telescope.


As an added bonus, astronomers may be able to collect some cometary material during the expected meteor shower. After all, NASA has used particle-catchers to collect dust from the early days of the solar system in the past.

There’s nothing like going to the comet and bringing it back, except that the comet shot ’em over here, Reach explained.


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